Just like anyone who works in science communication, I spend a fair amount of my time reading and thinking about the best ways to encourage an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in younger audiences. Every year there are new programs, new games, and new classroom tools which try to take the natural enthusiasm for science that blossoms in elementary schools and carry it through middle and high school and into future STEM careers.

With each new program you can find people, both in and out of current STEM careers, who express how much they would have loved that program when they had been kids. But that got me wondering – if these programs did not exist when the current population of new scientists and engineers were in school, what factors eventually led them to STEM degrees and careers when they were young.

So I asked them.

I reached out to eight of my colleagues who are currently in STEM fields and asked them a series of questions about their childhood interests in science, school experiences, and roadblocks that they faced on their path from elementary school to their current positions. They included:

  • 5 women and 3 men
  • 4 people with PhDs
  • 1 person with an MD
  • 2 people currently in PhD programs
  • 1 Government Researcher
  • 1 Assistant Professor
  • 1 University Lecturer
  • 2 Industry Researchers
  • 1 Pediatrician

Their feedback covered not only what drew them to science, but also what had almost pushed them away. Below I have consolidated the feedback into five main points, including the advice they would give their middle school selves if they could do it all again.

  1. The Initial STEM Spark: Look in Unexpected Places

Some of the early sparks for our participants came from somewhat expected places – one had a grandfather who was an inventor, another had a mother who worked as an engineer. Two people named time spent at museums and national parks for much of their initial interest in science and the natural world. But others had been inspired in more indirect ways.

Consider, for example, that the pediatrician’s early interest in medicine was attributed to the “awesome aquariums that always seemed to be in pediatrician’s lobbies.” Though perhaps a strange logic to consider as an adult, she said this made perfect sense as a part of a potential career decision for her elementary-school self.

There was also a common, and varyingly specific, reference to the importance of animals for most of the participants. Many wanted to work with or rescue animals, and fully half expressed the desire to work as paleontologists. Whether they wanted to be paleontologists, archeologists, or astronomers, participants would often end their recounting of these childhood aspirations with references to various movies from their early life.

I will note that one aspiring biologist did become an evolutionary biologist and one paleontologist did emerge from the mix, but the love that may have been sparked by Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, or Contact led to geophysicists, materials engineers, and planetary scientists as well.

  1. Cultivating Interest: Many Paths to Many Options

Many of the responses that led to interesting early career aspirations, again perhaps best considered through the lens of a younger mind. Their initial sparks led to such varying ambitions as:

  • An artist, and a doctor on the side
  • Railroad conductor/scientist
  • Designer of roller coasters
  • Whale trainer
  • Hairdresser for horses
  • Owner of wildlife rescue
  • Scholar of ancient pictograms and alien life
  • Paleontologist (this was, in fact, our paleontologist)

All eight mentioned having STEM ambitions long before they knew what the STEM subjects were. Two even mentioned the moments of “once I figured out that being a scientist was a career option” and “I had no idea that being a scientist was a viable option for me.” Specifically, the materials engineer explained, “Since I thought that scientist=physicist, I didn’t think that physicist was a real job that people had. I thought it was something that people did a long time ago. (Newton and such).”

Whatever the source of the inspiration, all of the responders’ younger selves were unafraid of setting their sights on fields with clear STEM ambitions. The narratives then shifted to the factors that made these paths falter, shift, or be quashed completely.

  1. Potential Roadblocks: Hampering Enthusiasm

Along with stories of creative early STEM ambitions, many of the participants had a shared journey: an early love of math/science that took a serious hit in middle school or high school. Not only was this turnaround common, but the language used to describe the experiences was quite strong.

  • “I used to like math as a child throughout middle school. Then I went to public high school and I started to hate it.”
  • “Physics and calculus in particular… god, I hated physics.”
  • “I hated the way that math was taught and still do… Thankfully I realized that I needed math to do the fun stuff (science) and so I stuck it out.”
  •  “I hated biology and chemistry in high school, but later took them in college as a part of my B.S. and loved them.”

These quotes seem to counter a myth believed by many people outside of the STEM disciplines: that having a difficult or discouraging experience in math or science somehow disqualifies you from a career in STEM. More often than not, the people in STEM careers at one point or another, struggled with the material that is now central to their lives. They just “stuck it out” – a practice that is fundamental to the daily work of science.

There were also two mentions of gender playing a potential role in their academic careers, both from the current PhD students. One said that she regretted not pursuing programming at all at a younger age, because she had previously felt that it was a “boys’ thing.” Programming continues to play an increasing role in her research. The other had the opposite experience, and said, “Being female, I think I lucked out in that I don’t ever remember being discouraged from being a scientist…which is probably why it took hold as early as it did.”

  1. Making Connections: Powerful Role of Educators

With so many of the potential roadblocks defined from cases that STEM subjects were too hard, boring, or lacking application, it is no surprise that the responses also highlighted the influences of teachers on their decisions. For as many statements as I had about “I had a terrible teacher,” I had comments thanking important teachers for helping them find inspiration later in their careers. Across the board, however, the emphasis on those educators making clear connections between their content and applications in the real world could not be overstated.

  • “I’m thankful that someone took the time to find a way to explain [chemistry] to me that made it 1) easy to understand and 2) relevant. It’s really cool when you starting getting into it and seeing the different applications.”
  • “I really struggled with chemistry and also with calculus because I had a difficult time seeing the real-world connections we were learning in class. I thought it was something I ‘couldn’t do’ for a while after that.”
  • “But if I had seen or understood the technology/drugs/civil engineering feats stemming from those concepts and the effect they had on humanity, I might have paid more attention.”

Overall 5/8 of the people who responded specifically mentioned that their earliest struggles were tied to subjects being taught without context – math for math’s sake, chemistry for chemistry’s sake, etc. When tasked to identify ways that their education or experience could have been improved, the most common response was for greater and clearer connections to the real or scientific worlds.

  1. If I Could do it Again: Advice to Your Middle School Self

In addition to feedback on what their schools or educators could have done differently, I asked the participants for the advice they would have given to their middle school selves to help them get more out of the school experience. That advice was:

  • Take more math and programming from an early age: Half of the participants wish they could help their middle-school selves to understand the value of investing their time more in math and programming. Now that they understand the applications and power of having a strong command of these, they would portray them as tools rather than just subjects.
  • Grades – vs- Interests: They wanted to let their middle-school selves know that grades, while important, are not the only or most important measure of knowledge. With the chance to go back, they would try not to be limited to what was in their textbooks. Instead, whenever they discovered something that peaked their interest, they would use that as an excuse to explore it more deeply beyond the scope of the curriculum.
  • Language/writing skills: Like math and programming, they wish they could convey the importance of language and writing skills to their younger selves. They cite the experiences of completing a degree in another country, conducting research abroad, or the fact that “as a researcher I spend as much time writing abstracts/grants/articles as I do anything else.” Once again, they would argue that these are important tools for their careers rather than classes in their curriculum.
  • Take classes outside of your central field: Expanding on the importance of tools like language and writing, the participants bemoaned the fact that they had not taken advantage of the resources available to them when they had the time to connect to their outside passions. They would not only take classes in music, visual arts, and personal finance, but they would keep up with them as lifelong pursuits rather than something that has to be started from scratch with greater difficulty at a later age.
  • Physical education as a life skill: While it may be unexpected to emphasize the importance of classes like physical education for a life in STEM, finding enjoyable physical pursuits and developing commitments to them early would have made fitting health into their lives easier once it became a more important priority. Additionally, four of those who responded ended up having field work play a significant role in their research, and a lack of physical fitness added difficulty to their work in a way they would go back and prevent if they could.

Even though none of us can actually go back in time, we can take these lessons and apply them to how we interact with young people currently experiencing their own journey with science.

I would like to thank the people who have made this non-scientific survey possible by sharing their own stories and experiences. So thanks to: Anya, Roopa, Dusty, Mary, Stephanie, Kristopher, Ryan, and Enrica.